When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

Summary: This article promises to be a fun romp through the sausage-making process that turns a word into part of language.

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TOPICS: Security
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Original image courtesy CBS News.

If you prefer cyberattack over cyber attack, are you more liberal, more conservative, or just undecided?

Next week, I'm doing a CBS Interactive webcast entitled Top 10 tips to protect your business against cyberattack. It promises to be an interesting and important session. This article, on the other hand, just promises to be a fun romp through the sausage-making process that turns a word into part of language.

When the CBS Interactive team produces one of these webcasts, a whole lot of very talented individuals are involved. One of the team members asked me a question I'd honestly never thought much about, "Should the word 'cyberattack' be two words, 'cyber attack'?"

Let me be clear that by formal training, I went to engineering school.

That means it's taken me years to learn to write "receive" instead of "recieve," and know when it's "its" and not "it's". I was not formally trained in grammar. I was formally trained in how to not blow myself up (true story). There is a difference in skill sets here.

Nonetheless, I know that "cyberspace" is one word. I know I have the title of "cyberwarfare advisor," where the "cyberwarfare" part is also one word. And yet, what of "cyberattack"?

Here's how I normally solve these things.

The first stop is Webster's. As it turns out, merriam-webster.com doesn't know of "cyberattack". When you type it in as one word, you get a lot of other cyberstuff, all shown as one word:

So that's at least a point in the favor of the Single Word Theory. Being a completionist, I decided to type in "cyber attack" as two words. Here, I made an intellectual connection I never thought possible. Apparently, "cyber attack" (two words) isn't in the dictionary, but we English language aficionados should consider using "iceberg lettuce" instead. Seriously. It was too good. I had to go grab a screenshot:

Can you now understand why I love this gig so much?

Anyway, we have a slight lean towards the single word usage, because the dictionary at least recommended other words with cyber prefixes, rather than the species of L. stativa in the genus Lactuca of the family Asteraceae (in other words, iceberg lettuce).

A second way I tend to solve word usage puzzles is by going to what was once the most well-respected source of such things, The New York Times. If The New York Times used a word in a certain way, that's certainly good enough for me. As the title "Cyberattack on Google Said to Hit Password System" shows, the Old Gray Lady (or is it Grey?) prefers the one-word form, "cyberattack".

But I've promised you that I won't be partisan. As every Tea Party member knows, The New York Times is the bastiony bulwark of the East Coast liberal elite. So how do we solve this? Who could we turn to?

Ah, of course. Nothing is more fair and balanced than FOXNews (disclosure: I've been a guest on FOXNews). How might FOXNews use "cyber" and "attack" together? As it turns out, FOXNews uses the two word "cyber attack" form, as in "Critical U.S. Infrastructure at Risk of Cyber Attack, Experts Warn".

Uh, oh.

Okay, how about the so-called liberal-leaning CNN? Disclosure: I'm a CNN contributor for the Anderson Cooper 360 program. CNN, in the article "2011 cyberattack targets: iPhone, Facebook, Foursquare", used the single-word form of "cyberattack," just like The New York Times.

Aha! Oh, wait.

CNN also uses the double word form, as in "European Union under cyber attack as major summit begins".

By refusing to pick sides in the "cyberattack" vs. "cyber attack" battle, does this mean CNN is more fair and balanced than Fox? No, I could not resist. What can I say? I'm weak.

Let's look at a few other outlets who use the single word form of "cyberattack":

For whatever reason, both ABC News and WaPo have been accused of slight liberal leanings (disclosure: I've been interviewed by both ABC News and the Washington Post). They're not alone in their use of the single-word form. Other CBS Interactive properties (ZDNet is a CBS Interactive property) also use the single word form of "cyberattack" (and, yes, disclosure, I've been linked to, written for, and been covered by both CNET and CBS News):

Okay, so we know that ABC News, CBS News, PC World, ComputerWorld, CNET, the Washington Post, and The New York Times all favor the single-word usage form, "cyberattack".

Does this mean that FOXNews stands alone in its dual word usage?

Well, no. Not really. As you might imagine, the Wall Street Journal (which, like FOXNews, is owned by Rupert Murdoch) uses two words for "cyber attack," as in "Wide Cyber Attack Is Linked to China".

Here are a few others who use the dual-word form:

W..wait a minute! The White House? The Obama White House? The Obama White House likes the two word form "cyber attack," just like FOXNews. What could it mean?

If FOXNews likes "cyber attack" and the Wall Street Journal likes "cyber attack" -- and the White House also likes "cyber attack," what's the connection? What could it be?

Heh. So now that I've channeled my inner Glenn Beck, let's look at a few outliers.

There's also "cyber-attack," for those organizations unwilling to commit. In the Solomon-like, hyphenate-the-word-down-the-middle category, we get industry publication eWEEK (sigh, disclosure, I've also written for and been written about in eWEEK), along with -- wait for it -- ABC News:

Let's summarize what we've learned

CBS News, PC World, ComputerWorld, CNET, the Washington Post, and The New York Times all favor the single-word version, "cyberattack". Further, while Merriam-Webster doesn't acknowledge the single word "cyberattack," it does acknowledge other single-word cyberusages.

FOXNews, the Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, Christian Science Monitor, and the Obama White House all favor the double word version, "cyber attack". When it comes to two words, Merriam-Webster would rather you use "iceberg lettuce" than "cyber attack".

eWEEK prefers the hyphenated version, "cyber-attack".

CNN is trying to stay in the middle, so it uses both "cyberattack" and "cyber attack". And ABC News, who apparently is the most indecisive of the bunch, is pretty much willing to go with "cyberattack," "cyber attack," or "cyber-attack".

What is the right word usage?

How the heck am I supposed to know? Didn't I tell you I went to engineering school? Yes. Yes I did.

Seriously, though, it seems there's no clear winner. My practice in the past has been to go first with the dictionary (which vaguely favors the single-word answer) and then The New York Times (which definitely favors the single-word answer).

In addition, since I'm writing and speaking on behalf of CBS, and since both CBS News and CNET use the single-word variant, it would seem prudent for me to use "cyberattack" rather than "cyber attack". I know which side my bread is buttered on!

Now, is it "webcast" or "Webcast"? Aarhhhhhhgh!

Topic: Security

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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Talkback

24 comments
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  • LOL! I liked the

    "Bidenism" type thought ballon! (I wonder if they serve cookies on the train)

    I prefer to think that "cyberattack" works, carried out by the dreaded "Cybermen"
    Bill Pharaoh
    • RE: When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

      @Bill Pharaoh

      so true; and we all know Who will save us!
      TAPhilo
      • LOL!

        @TAPhilo
        :)
        Bill Pharaoh
    • Must be write something or be fired day.

      @Bill Pharaoh

      cyberattack = liberal
      cyber attack = conservative
      cyber-attack = independent

      Actually cyberattack is German in format. Take 2 or more words and combine them together so the word is impossible to learn. That is why they abbreviate or have contractions.

      Panzerkamfpwagen = Panther Battle Wagon = Tank
      Sturzkampfflugzeug = Fall Battle Aircraft = Dive Bomber
      Kugelschreiber = Ball Scriber = Ball Point Pen
      Cyberangriff = Cyber Attack

      But you will notice one thing about the translator. All the combined words in German are individual words in English when run through it. So it looks like the right is using a spell checker and the left is trying to use big words to confuse us all by being suave and debonair.

      Here is something too true.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tN-drEG7wms&feature=youtu.be
      osreinstall
      • RE: When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

        @osreinstall ... actually Panzerkamfpwagen means
        Armored fighting vehicle. the rest is close enough.. :)
        straycat5678
      • RE: When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

        @osreinstall

        Well I knew kampf = fight or battle and wagen is obvious the translater on this one is tank-combatdare. The syntax never comes thru correctly on translator. My whole point mainly was humor at the crazy article and the lengths folks will go for a partisan hit fest. So I just came out of nowhere with a monkey wrench.
        osreinstall
  • Hadn't noticed

    I know this is all tongue in cheek, but it seems to me that "cyber" (short for "cybernetic") is, in nearly all circumstances, a prefix, not a stand alone word; thus, "cyberattack". The only exception I'm aware of is a long obsolete line of mainframe computers formerly made by Control Data Corporation (I did my college programming projects on one a very long time ago).
    John L. Ries
    • RE: When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

      @John L. Ries

      So, if a dog attacks it should be dogattack, or if a bee stings you it's a beeattack? Hmm, that string of vowels seems awfully unpleasant. Let's look to the French for inspiration there. Je aime = J'aime, so beeattack = battack? Oh, that give me an idea, batattack!
      tkejlboom
      • "Dog" is a stand-alone noun

        @tkejlboom
        Hence, a "dog attack". "Cyber attack" implies the attack was launched from an old CDC mainframe (the only context in which "cyber" is a stand-alone word, instead of a prefix); "cyberattack" is a cybernetic attack, regardless of the source.
        John L. Ries
    • RE: When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

      @John L. Ries Generally speaking 'cyber' is used as slang for online prostitution services. GG...
      ITSamurai
      • Wouldn't know

        @ITSamurai
        But that definition of "cyber" as noun doesn't work any better in "cyber attack" than does the other.
        John L. Ries
  • RE: When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

    Being an engineer too, I couldn't resist some further research. What I found was:

    cyber-
    a combining form meaning ?computer,? ?computer network,? or ?virtual reality,? used in the formation of compound words ( cybertalk; cyberart; cyberspace ) and by extension meaning ?very modern? ( cyberfashion ).

    and

    cyber
    as a prefix, ultimately from cybernetics (q.v.). It enjoyed explosive use with the rise of the Internet early 1990s. One researcher (Nagel) counted 104 words formed from it by 1994. Cyberpunk (by 1986) and cyberspace were among the earliest.

    Cyber is such a perfect prefix. Because nobody has any idea what it means, it can be grafted onto any old word to make it seem new, cool -- and therefore strange, spooky. ["New York" magazine, Dec. 23, 1996]

    So it sounds like cyberattack is the preferred form no matter what Fox, et al say.
    r_rosen
  • RE: When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

    LOL! Great write AND read!
    TAPhilo
  • How to not blow myself up (true story)

    Did you ever have a green-wire / red-wire situation like in all the movies?
    TAPhilo
    • RE: When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

      @TAPhilo Almost. We had one class where we were dealing with very (very) high voltage situations and another where it was very important that certain chemicals not be combined (or banged together or lit on fire) or baaaaad things would happen. Heh, way more fun than any class has any right to be.

      These days, when I get that certain gleam in my eye, my wife usually begins with a very caring, but concerned, "Honey....?" and I put down the power tools and call a licensed contractor.
      David Gewirtz
      • Dave, Buddy!

        @David Gewirtz

        When are you going to learn its easier to ask forgiveness than permission!

        I use to keep Wife apprised of my doings but she was always so apprehensive waiting for the BOOM.

        Now its 'Honey, check this out'(BOOM), OOps.

        At least now she doesn't have the hours/days/weeks of apprehension, depending on the project.

        :)
        rmhesche
      • RE: When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

        @David Gewirtz

        Hold my beer and watch this!

        Famous redneck last words.
        wkulecz
      • RE: When it comes to cyber-attack, does the left prefer cyberattack and the right cyber attack?

        @David Gewirtz
        you need to lobby to be a guest star on NCIS in one of those danger moments! You would be great in a bit part like that!
        TAPhilo
  • MS Word prefers two words

    I have MSWord 2002 and with the exception of cybercafe it seems to think all other uses of cyber should have a space in order to be considered correct. Does that make MS right leaning?
    perkins42
  • Yes they do serve cookies

    Or, at least they did on the Acela last time I was on it. But, Joe would know that. Still.... cookies!

    Steven

    P.S. Oh, and it's cyber-attack. ;-)
    sjvn